Regarding Career References
By Sue Campbell

References are often the last tool considered in a job hunt.

When you entered this job hunt, you knew you needed a résumé. A cover letter was a very good idea, too, and you got right on it. You may have even considered creating a follow up "Thank you" note for all those interviews (because you are very smart). You may have found yourself sitting at your computer late one night writing the perfect resignation letter (either the most difficult or most fun of compositions), being careful not to burn any bridges. But what about these references? You know you need them. You know that at some point in the interview game, if the hiring manager is on top of things, he or she is going to ask for them. But when? And from whom should these referrals come; past employers, co-workers, colleagues, mentors, professors, friends? Should they be written, or is it better for the hiring manager to speak to the referral (on the phone)? How far back in time can you go with your references before they are considered "too old," or no longer quite as valid or valuable?

Your résumé may proudly state that you have them available, "References available," but the truth is that statement is as far as many job hunters get, before scrambling to put something together at the request of a hiring manager or potential employer at the last minute.

When should you begin gathering references? You should be gathering these throughout your career life, whether you have a current need for them or not. Every time you leave a position, for example, you should be collecting letters, names and contact information from your employer, co-workers and clients who would be willing to express, either in writing or as a future contact, the level of services and work you have provided, even if the next job has been secured without them. When you graduate from college, getting letters of recommendation from professors and mentors should be one of the first things on your "To do" list. It may be a couple of years down the road before you need these references, but when you need them, when the job you are targeting is perfect and you want the best opportunity to beat out the other potential candidates for the position. . . good (no, great) references can make the difference.

Another reason why it is so important to gather these references immediately after graduation or resignation from a position is because at that moment your accomplishments, talents, skills and achievements are as clear to your reference as they may ever be. Think about what this reference or contact person may remember about you five years from now, versus what they know about you today. The achievement that brings such a wide smile of gratitude so soon after it's been accomplished may dim as the years move forward.

Get your references in writing, even if you have to offer to write the reference letter yourself. And try to get them on company letterhead if at all possible. Many people don't have the time or inclination to write a lengthy letter, but will be glad to sign one if the information is accurate and presented well. Written letters of recommendation remain a strong indication of what you have to offer.

In addition to having written letters of recommendation, you want to be able to provide the potential employer or hiring manager with names of those who they may contact who know of your work ethics, talents and achievements. By speaking directly with your references, the hiring manager may have the opportunity to ask questions specific and relevant to the particular position you're targeting. Because of this, it's important that you contact these references immediately following an interview, to bring them up-to-speed regarding the position in question and any particular criteria addressed in the interview. A prepared referral will provide much more enthusiastic and valuable information than one who is caught off-guard.

The information you provide to a potential employer regarding your reference contacts (in writing) should include: the referral's full name, their title (President, Owner, Manager, Producer, Program Director, Project Manager, etc.), the company they work for (ABC Corporation), their relationship to you (supervisor, employer, co-worker, mentor, professor, etc.) and a phone number or e-mail address where they may be reached.

Your references should be either current, individuals who have worked with you recently or have remained in contact with you on a regular basis and are familiar with your current career direction and achievements. Every employer or hiring manager is most interested in information that is the most current. Therefore, a referral who is familiar with your work during the most recent few years will be more valuable, from the potential employer's point of view, than a contact person whose last relevant experience with you was 10 or 15 years ago. This does not mean that you cannot include referrals who are from 10 in years in the past, but you should also include individuals who are familiar with your most recent work efforts and achievements.

What makes a good referral? A good referral addresses the personal and professional characteristics you have demonstrated in past positions or environments (relevant to the positions you are currently targeting), with a focus on the benefits or values of your contributions and efforts.

Simply put, a good referral encourages a potential employer view you as a valuable hire.

Good luck with your job search!
Sue Campbell